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New Study: Black, special ed students punished at greater rate through pandemic

Jo Napolitano | July 11, 2022

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Despite a dramatic decline in suspensions as students moved to remote learning during the pandemic, Black children and those in special education were disciplined far more often than white students and those in general education, according to a recent New York University study.

The report also indicates students’ behavior may have worsened this past academic year, echoing news accounts of young children regressing and older students acting out as a result of anxiety and depression and just-released federal surveys of 850 school leaders where roughly 1 in 3 reported an increase in student fights or physical attacks.

And, it notes, some schools have turned away from restorative justice programs that grew out of the Obama era to more punitive tactics, including out-of-school suspensions, which are particularly damaging to students: Research shows they harm academic achievement and can foreshadow incarceration in adulthood.

The Department of Education is in the process of revising its own disciplinary recommendations with a focus on these same student groups.

“This is perhaps one of the most urgent civil rights and social justice issues in education,” said Richard O. Welsh, assistant professor at NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development and the study’s author. “It is incredibly important in our effort to create a more equal and just society that we look at the school system and consider opportunities to learn and grow.”

Welsh cites two sources in his June 10 report: a 13,000-student district in the Atlanta metro area that allowed him to scrutinize its disciplinary records from 2014 to 2022 and news reports on student discipline culled from around the country.

Richard O. Welsh, assistant professor at NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, found Black students and those in special education were disciplined far more often than their white and general education peers through the pandemic. (Dorothy Kozlowski)

He found that while suspensions plummeted at the Georgia district during the pandemic, Black students were still more likely to face punishment as compared to white and Hispanic students. News reports from across the nation back up the assertion.

Welsh learned that while the Georgia district’s office discipline referrals — such as a teacher sending a child to the principal’s office during in-person learning — declined in the 2020-21 school year, 82% of those referrals involved Black children, who made up only 48% of the student body.

Special education students accounted for 15% of the district’s overall population, but were 42% of the referrals that year. That number was not only disproportionate, it marked a significant spike from pre-pandemic years, when special needs students represented 29% of discipline referrals. Welsh found, too, Black children continued to be singled out in this category: Between 2015 and 2019, 23% of students referred for office discipline were Black students enrolled in special education. The figure jumped to 37% in 2020-21.

Disproportionality is a longstanding problem when it comes to school discipline.

American children lost 11.2 million days of instruction in the 2017-18 academic year because of out-of-school suspensions, according to the most recent data available from the U.S. Department of Education.

While Black students made up just 15% of all U.S. students in 2017, they accounted for nearly 42% of the suspensions: Students with disabilities were 13.75% of all students and more than 24% of suspensions.

Too much punishment, or too little

Many school systems around the country have not yet compiled their disciplinary data for this past school year. But Welsh said interviews with staff at the Georgia district plus information gleaned from local news reports “points to an uptick in disciplinary infractions and consequences” in 2021-22.

Rohini Singh, assistant director at the School Justice Project for Advocates for Children of New York, said some schools are ratcheting up the punishments for incidents that would have been handled differently prior to the pandemic.

In step with his findings, Rohini Singh, assistant director at the School Justice Project for Advocates for Children of New York, said some schools are ratcheting up the punishments for incidents that would have been handled differently prior to the pandemic. 

This is particularly true of on-campus fights, she said: A scuffle between two children that drew a crowd of onlookers might not have resulted in an out-of-school suspension in the past, but has stark consequences today — and not only for the students at the heart of the tussle. Onlookers are also being targeted, she said, charged with an infraction called “group violence,” a punishment previously doled out only to those who planned an attack in advance.

“The school is seeking a [lengthy] suspension for all of these students instead of looking at the individual circumstances, understanding what happened, the context,” Singh said.

New York City Department of Education Press Secretary Nathaniel Styer said he could not comment on specific discipline cases without knowing the names of the students involved. In 2019, the DOE moved to cap almost all suspensions to 20 days, restrict student arrests and train educators in alternative disciplinary practices.

At least one recent news story reports some NYC teachers and parents believe children are not being punished enough and that serious student misbehavior is often ignored. DOE data does show suspensions dropping dramatically, from 14,502 for the first four months of the 2017-18 school year to 8,369 for the same time period four years later.

The city school system has committed millions to restorative justice programs that focus on reconciliation over punishment to address long-standing racial disparities. Results are mixed but a 2021 California studyshowed children with the highest levels of exposure to restorative practices experienced Black–white discipline disparities five times smaller than those with the lowest levels of exposure.

Dana Ashley oversees a joint program between the United Federation of Teachers and the DOE aimed at changing the culture and climate in dozens of schools, moving them away from after-the-fact disciplinary tactics. She said teachers who have had continuous training on how to handle student meltdowns feel less discontented than those who have not.

“Teachers are frustrated when they are told they are supposed to know something, but are not given the resources to know it and do it well,” she said.

Elsewhere in the country, Chicago Public Schools saw a 16% increase in out-of-school suspensions for high school students in the first semester of the 2021-22 school year compared to the same time period two years earlier.

But, said Jadine Chou, head of safety and security at the 341,000-student district, it could have been far worse: CPS saw a 38% reduction in police notifications and a 50% drop in expulsions at its high schools during this same time period, which Chou attributes to the district’s long-standing commitment to restorative justice.

“We are very grateful to our school staff that they have signed on to this mindset,” she said, calling it, “the right thing to do.”

Pandemic-related trauma

Child advocate Andrew Hairston, director of the Education Justice Project at Texas Appleseed, said schools should consider the trauma students have faced before punishing them. (Kirk Tuck)

In the current climate, Andrew R. Hairston, director of the Education Justice Project at Texas Appleseed, said schools must factor in pandemic-related trauma when evaluating student behavior: Educators must remember many of these children lost loved ones, survived food and housing insecurity and endured unprecedented levels of isolation — and, in some cases, abuse — prior to returning to the classroom.

Their re-entry was botched, he said: Children needed greater flexibility and compassion.

“There is some lip service to social-emotional learning, but the investments don’t meet the needs,” he said.

Anell Eccleston, director of care and sustainability at the Student Advocacy Center of Michigan, said his organization’s helpline received nearly 300 calls this past school year from families concerned with disciplinary issues — up from roughly 150 prior to the pandemic.

“The majority of calls are from students who qualify for free or reduced lunch and single-parent homes, where their parent or guardian has also been impacted harshly by the pandemic,” he said. “Some schools are reimplementing zero tolerance practices and pushing out students at high rates.”

Out West, Paradise Valley Schools, which serves some 30,000 students in Phoenix and Scottsdale, also saw a jump in out-of-school suspensions, from 1,223 in 2018-19 to 1,356 last school year. In-school-suspensions dropped from 1,135 to 1,091 in that same time period.

School should have given younger students more time to play and older kids a greater opportunity to manage their emotions, perhaps allowing them to leave the classroom to cool off, said Meenal McNary, a co-collaborator with the Round Rock Black Parents Association in Texas. But a “return-to-normal” mindset won out, she said.

McNary pulled her three children, ages 5, 10 and 12, from her local public school district last year in favor of a small charter with a far higher percentage of Black and Hispanic children.

But even that didn’t spare them from what she believes is outsized punishment for minor infractions, like their failure to sit still and listen: When one of her kids was talking to another student in class while his teacher was delivering a lesson, the educator took away his Chromebook for a week as punishment, she said.

“They use that to learn,” she said. “How does that make any sense? Why can’t we do something different? OK, he’s bored, so what else can we do?”

Add high-stakes tests, pandemic-related stress for all and the constant threat of gun violence and both teachers and students are flailing, she said.

The roughest year of my life

Some states, recognizing the long-term damage of strict punishment, have tried to dramatically curb heavy-handed measures: Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner in 2015 signed legislation aimed at making suspensions a last resort in an attempt to disrupt the school-to- prison pipeline. Several other states, including Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Louisiana and Nevada, have limited the grade levels in which out-of-school suspensions and expulsions can be used.

Denver Public Schools, which served 86,600 students last school year, started implementing restorative justice practices in 2005. A 2017 grant grew the program exponentially, prompting a 64% decrease in out-of-school suspensions overall, with a 77% decline for Black students and a 79% drop for children with disabilities, said Jay Grimm, the district’s director of student equity and opportunity.

But this past school year brought new challenges. The district saw a marked increase in what the state of Colorado dubs “detrimental behavior,” including student fights and bullying. In 2018-19, such behavior resulted in 1,155 out-of-school suspensions. Last year, the figure jumped to 1,754.

The district shrunk by roughly 4,000 students in that same time period.

Grimm said the school system remains committed to alternative forms of managing student misbehavior. There was a 41.5% reduction in expulsions this past school year compared to 2018-19, partly because the district changed the way teachers report classroom insubordination, which, he said, “could be subjective or have some bias.”

Nearly everyone who returned to the classroom last school year was at a disadvantage, administrators said. Teachers started the year burned out and those who were new to the profession, who joined the field when school was remote, had trouble managing their students.

Melissa Laurel, an educator for 21 years, said her South Texas charter school saw a four-fold increase in disciplinary referrals this past academic year. While fights remained relatively uncommon at her 6th- through 12th-grade campus, vandalism skyrocketed as children answered TikTok challenges that left her school’s bathrooms damaged.

Worse yet, she said, parents, who used to be allies in helping teachers manage their children at school, were suddenly unsupportive. A high-ranking administrator on the road to becoming principal, Laurel left the post to work at the charter’s regional office in part because of poor student behavior.

“It was the roughest year of my life,” said Laurel, who starts her new position in July. “The kids were just more aggressive.”

David Combs, former assistant principal at a Knoxville, Tennessee high school, said staff observed an increase in racial slurs among students and more vandalism than he had ever seen in his 23 years in education — combined.

Combs, who will start a new position at a different district in the fall, attributes the change to too much time at home and on the internet.

“It was as if they missed a stage in development and maturity,” he said. “But, toward the end of the year, that was starting to decline.”

McNary, the Round Rock parent leader, is empathetic to teachers, saying they had to manage an entirely new, fraught landscape: Not only did they have unruly students but they also had to abide by new Texas state laws restricting discussions of systemic racism and LGBTQ issues.

“Teachers not only have to make sure their kids are OK, but also to not say anything wrong,” she said. “When are they supposed to get to know the children?”

This article was published in partnership with The 74. Sign up for The 74’s newsletter here.

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